knoxville news
knoxville newsknoxville daily sun lifestyle business knoxville sports travel knoxville classifieds knoxville jobs knoxville legal notices knoxville yellow pages smoky mountains contact facebook twitter linkedin rss entertainment knoxville advertising

Trying To Make Sense of ‘The Great War’
By Tom Adkinson

 (Editor’s note: It was 100 years ago this year that America entered World War I. Here’s a reflection on that war as we mark Veterans Day 2017.)

great war
Each of the 9,000 poppies beneath the museum’s glass entrance bridge represents 1,000 of the nine million combat deaths in World War I. Image by the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

liberty memorial tower
The 217-foot-tall Liberty Memorial Tower is a landmark on the Kansas City skyline. Image by Tom Adkinson.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As an early baby boomer, World War II was familiar to me because war stories were all around. A friend’s father had a Japanese carbine. “Guadalcanal Diary” was an exciting read, as was “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Movies such as “The Sands of Iwo Jima” and “The Longest Day” filled the big screen.

It was World War I, the one called “The Great War,” that didn’t make much sense. It was long ago and complicated, a jumble of combatants that were difficult to sort out. It seemed to lack the drama of Midway or Normandy or the Flying Tigers.

That ended with a single museum visit in an unlikely place – Kansas City, site of the National World War I Museum and Memorial. The enormity and pathos of that horrible time hit me as soon as I entered.

Just inside was a glass bridge that leads to the major exhibit areas. Beneath the glass is a field of 9,000 poppies. It was an attractive and appealing art installation until I read that each of the red poppies represented 1,000 lives. More precisely, each poppy represented 1,000 deaths. That beautiful field of poppies was a statement about the nine million combat deaths of World War I.

WWI Cannon
Somber lighting and compelling graphics set the mood inside the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Image by Tom Adkinson.
Downtown Kansas City is a pleasant place with big office buildings, hotels, sports facilities, restaurants and the like, and the National World War I Museum and Memorial is one of its landmarks.

Finding it is easy. Its galleries are hidden underground, but the 217-foot-tall Liberty Memorial Tower rises conspicuously above them. Next to the tower are two giant stone sphinxes – “Memory” faces east, with its wings shielding its face from the horrors of the European battlefields, while “Future” faces west, with wings covering its face to symbolize the unseen time ahead.

Inside are the poppies and a well-told story of complicated political alliances, colonial empires and entire societies on the verge of incredible unrest and change. The galleries trace how a single gunshot in Sarajevo in 1914 led to the first global conflict. Thirty-six nations took up arms, and 65 million men and women served in the military.

The museum transcends the expected displays of military hardware – impressive though they are – and explains the war though headlines, photographs, multi-media presentations and excerpts from soldiers’ journals and letters. The museum makes the war human and personal.

A museum visitor peers back 100 years to examine the portrait of an American soldier. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The war raged for years before Americans went “over there,” and one of the museum’s most impressive presentations addresses that history-changing decision. It’s a 15-minute multi-media program about America on the threshold of involvement, and it’s a complex story that includes the sinking of the British ship Lusitania (1195 deaths, including 128 Americans), Germany’s 1917 resumption of unrestricted submarine attacks on any ships headed to Great Britain, and feelings of a moral imperative.

As I tried to absorb the presentation, my eyes kept looking down at a re-creation of a battlefield trench complex that seemed the length of a city block. The program on the screen and the jagged, muddy, bloody, frightening battlefield tableau below powerfully reinforced each other.

The museum’s whole story was big and powerful, clear and understandable. It was a history lesson I was glad I finally had gotten, and I began to wonder why that mostly European war was commemorated in the American heartland. The reason is that the earth-shaking enormity of the Great War had a profound emotional impact on people all over the country.

Just two weeks after the November 11, 1918, armistice, Kansas Citians began a campaign that led to construction of the Liberty Memorial. A community-based fundraising drive garnered $2.5 million in 1919, and the tower opened in 1926.

US Army insignia
Insignia of the U.S. Army units that served in World War I create in impressive display. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Public and private money addressed restoration needs in the late 1990s, and in 2004, a bond issue funded today’s modern museum. Congress designated it the National World War I Museum and Memorial in 2014.

Trip-planning resources: and

Published November 10, 2017


knoxville daily sun Knoxville Daily Sun
2017 Image Builders
User Agreement | Privacy Policy